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Spam: Where Does this Meat Come From?

In 1926, George A. Hormel of Hormel Foods created the first canned ham. This canned meat product gained quick popularity at hotels and restaurants, who were happy to have ham in such convenient storage. Though canned ham would be a common item in grocery stores later on, Hormel saw the product as too bulky to appeal to customers, and didn’t really try to get them onto the shelves. Eleven years later, George Hormel’s son Jay Hormel hit upon a new way to sell pork. He came up with a combination of pork shoulder, ham, and potato starch, with salt, water and sodium nitrite added in. This new product was processed into rectangular blocks and placed in 12 ounce cans. It retailed for 10¢, and was a hit with shoppers during the Great Depression, when there was a large demand for cheap meat. This new product was called Spam. Exactly why Spam is called Spam is shrouded in mystery, according to Hormel. It’s widely assumed to be short for “spice ham” or “spare meat” or “shoulders of pork and ham”, and in some corners it’s said to be an acronym of “Specially Processed Army Meat” or “Specially Processed American Meat”. Hormel’s official story is that the name was the winner of a company-wide naming contest in which a $100 prize was awarded to the brother of a Hormel executive soon before it was introduced in 1937. According to Hormel, the true meaning of the name “is known only by a small circle of former Hormel executives”. Give something a little mystique, and it helps with the marketing.

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Keep your husbands happy, ladies!

Whatever the origin of the name, the product quickly became a staple of the American diet. By 1940, “the meat of many uses” (as read the slogan on the first cans) had enough clout to sponsor the popular George Burns and Gracie Allen radio program. The next year, as the United States entered World War II, its prospects only got better. The convenience and portability of canned meat was ideal for the US Army, and so Spam went to war. With a large American military presence in both the Pacific and European theaters, Spam went with them, and acquired a certain popularity that remained even after the war was over. The many American troops stationed all over the world helped spread Spam’s popularity, but after a while, Spam didn’t need a boost: it had become popular enough in its own right. Throughout China, Japan, Korea and the Philippines, Spam was embraced, and demand remained after the war, and it’s still a popular meat in these countries today. Hormel adjusted its formula a bit for the Asian markets, since a “meatier” product is preferred, but it’s basically the same stuff. South Korea consumes more Spam per capita today than any other country. It’s so popular there that there was even a knock-off product called Lo-Spam. You know, for when you can’t get the real thing. Lo-Spam was named for its manufacturer, the Japanese/Korean conglomerate Lotte, but the tension from this trademark infringement was diffused when Lotte finally decided to start marketing the product as “luncheon meat”.

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Korean knock-off Spam

Spam also gained traction in the United Kingdom, both during and after the war, when Britain suffered terrible shortages of many essential items, causing rationing to continue for nearly a decade after the fighting stopped. Spam, cheap and widely available, met Britons’ needs, and it made its way into the British diet. Though it’s still popular there today, Spam’s predictability and ubiquity (and cheapness) caused the word to gain a negative association, meaning something dull, bland and low-grade. In 1970, Spam’s hold on the British diet and culture made its way into a now-famous comedy sketch by Monty Python’s Flying Circus, in which a customer in a restaurant hopelessly tries to order something to eat that doesn’t contain Spam. Outside of Britain, the sketch is funny because it’s absurd, but lost to foreign audiences is this very real connection it had with Britain of those days. Here is a link to this sketch:

Monty Python's famous "Spam" sketch.

Note that the Vikings in the restaurant start singing “Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam…” echoing the word “Spam” in the sketch’s dialog. This is thought, by some, to be the origin of the current word spam, meaning unwanted email or internet comments. It’s said that since the Vikings in the sketch are “spamming the dialog,” the same could be said of interruptions in internet communication. There is no evidence that this is the true origin, but there’s no question that spam has come to mean just that, as long as you don’t capitalize it. Hormel Foods is not happy about this development but they roll with the punches. In Hormel offices today, the proper term is unwanted emails; to them, there’s only one Spam, and there’s to be nothing pejorative about it. In 2001, spam entered into the Oxford English Dictionary as a bona fide noun and verb, much to Hormel’s dismay. After all, how can you stop the evolution of language? In 1996, Hormel did sue Jim Henson Studios when they named a porcine pirate “Spa’am” in their movie “Muppet Treasure Island”, but a judge dismissed the case, saying, “One might think Hormel would welcome the association with a genuine piece of pork.”

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Spa’am the Pirate: okay, he doesn’t exactly look loveable...

Spam is genuine pork, of course, even if it’s not exactly a cut of… well, of anything. Hormel and Spam’s fans do have a distinct enthusiasm for the product, with a Spam museum in Hormel’s Austin, Minnesota headquarters, an annual Spam recipe competition, and Hormel gives its blessing to numerous Spam festivals across the United States, including Spamarama, held every April Fool’s Day in Austin, Texas. Spamarama was originally intended to be a gentle ribbing of the world’s number one processed meat, but Hormel has embraced it. Spamarama included Spam tosses, Spam sculpting, and other Spam sporting events, as well as competitions involving cooking and eating the stuff. The first Spamarama kicked off in 1976, and the last one took place in 2007. Looks like someone’s falling down on the imperative to keep Austin weird, right? There’s always been something weird about Spam, something oddly comical that it’s hard to put a finger on. Comedic parodist “Weird Al” Yankovic said that he’d always felt that he wanted to write a song about Spam, but had trouble coming up with something perfect. (Weird Al does have some pretty high standards.) In 1989 he finally got his chance, writing a song simply called “Spam”, a parody of R.E.M.’s hit “Stand”. How unusual it is to achieve one of your life’s major goals by age 30. Did the song have any impact on the singer? Perhaps. Three years later, Weird Al became a vegan.

"Spam" by "Weird Al" Yankovic


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